Progressive Governors Indulge Their Inner Despot

What really lurks behind their façade of concern for the “people” and the “oppressed.”

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

Poet Sylvia Plath’s slur against women, that they “adore a fascist, the boot in the face, the brute,” is more true about progressives, with one big difference: they want to be the ones wearing the boot. Behind their façade of therapeutic concern for the “people” and the “oppressed” lies something that Vladimir Lenin was honest enough to express in 1906: the lust for “power, which is totally unlimited by any laws, totally unrestrained by absolutely any rules, and based directly on force.”

Thankfully, those impulses so far have been checked by our Constitutional order, which was created to inhibit the concentration and excesses of power that threatens citizen freedom. But as we have seen over the last century, at times of crisis the technocratic progressives have chipped away at those Constitutional guardrails and serially encroached on our freedoms. The current virus crisis is the latest opportunity for the Dems to indulge their inner despots.

We’ve all seen the catalogue of overweening unilateral diktats enforced by police power coming down from Democrat governors. Under the guise of enforcing social distancing in order to slow the spread of the disease, governors have quickly violated the Bill of Rights: closing gun stores at the same time they release felons from prison; shutting down church services while leaving liquor stores open; criminalizing the right to peaceful assembly; arbitrarily deeming some economic activities as “essential,” like abortion clinics and pot dispensaries, while proscribing others like buying paint or vegetable seeds. Even our freedom of movement that doesn’t endanger others, such as surfing alone or playing with our children in a deserted park, has been interdicted by overzealous police.

At one level, this permanent temptation to seek and abuse power is part of human nature, as both our Judeo-Christian and Classical traditions recognized. The story of the Fall in Genesis is about choosing power to exercise our free will as we see fit, over being obedient to our Creator: “Ye shall be as gods,” Satan lies to Eve. The Greeks invented tragedy to make the same point about power. Success and achievement lead to hubris that makes us cross the lines defining our humanity and its limits. Instead we believe we can be like gods and use our power to tyrannize our fellows: “Hubris breeds the tyrant,” as Sophocles said of Oedipus.

On a more mundane level, we have all experienced the effects of power-hunger, from playground bullies to arrogant bosses, from despotic teachers to power-drunk cops, from petty tyrants at the DMV to Stalinoid school administrators. But progressivism and its leftist cousins go far beyond that all-too-human tendency to abuse power. It endorses an ideology predicated on the assumption that those properly trained in the “human sciences” can be trusted with expanded power, for their aims are the fruit not of unscientific religion, tradition, practical wisdom, or common sense, but of reason and science. As such, the progressive policies are self-evidently true and rational, and anyone who resists them are like flat-earthers to be reeducated, ostracized, or if necessary eliminated, but at least subjected to the superior knowledge of the technocratic elite.

Of course, these ideas are diametrically opposed to those of the Founders. Our Constitution reflects the truth that humans, no matter how rich or smart or well-born, are subject to the lure of power and will seek to increase their own at the expense of the rights of others. So in addition to divided government and federalism, which block the excessive concentration of power, the Bill of Rights was made part of our governing document as another check on tyranny.

However, since the 1880s, the progressives in theory and practice have been weakening these defenses against encroaching power. They “demystified” individual rights by denying that they are “unalienable,” given not by flawed men but “endowed by their Creator,” and bestowed by “nature and nature’s God.” Rather, rights are created by men to serve particular circumstances at particular times. Progressive theorist Mary Parker Follett, for example, in 1918 wrote that the individual “unalienable rights” now needed to be augmented by “social rights” bestowed by a government guided by the “most vital trend in philosophical thought and by the latest biologists and social psychologists.” These technocrats can then set to work “creating all the rights we shall ever have.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt went much further in reducing and subordinating our rights to the ideology of the federal government and its “managerial elite.” In a 1932 campaign address, he claimed the “age of enlightened administration has come,” and called for the “modifying and controlling of our economic units,” which in turn “may in some measure qualify the freedom and action of individual units within the business.” Twelve years later Roosevelt turned to the expansion of “rights” that government need to create to ensure “equality in the pursuit of happiness.” His “Second Bill of Rights” included everything from a “useful and remunerative job” to a “decent home” and a “good education.”

Achieving these utopian aims required first that the core principle of the Constitution, unalienable rights beyond the power of the government, be revised. As progressive historian Charles Beard said in 1912 in these chilling and prophetic words, “The doctrine that the individual has fundamental personal and property rights which are beyond the reach, not only of the majority but of the state itself, can be sustained on no other theory than that of anarchy. It rests upon a notion as obsolete and indefensible as the doctrine of natural rights.” Beard was seconding progressive champion Herbert Croly, who in 1909 had called for “an increasing amount of centralized action and responsibility,” which would require we discard “the strong, almost dominant, tendency to regard the existing Constitution with superstitious awe, and to shrink in horror from modifying it in even the smallest detail.”

Over the subsequent century this ideology has fueled the expansion of the federal government at the expense of civil society and individual rights. The current “woke” socialists have made no secret of their demands for greater government power at the expense of individuals in order to achieve “social justice” and “equality.” Thus it’s no coincidence that many of the despotic orders coming from blue-state governors target the unalienable, enumerated rights in the Constitution such as the First and Second Amendments.

What makes these assaults on our rights so dangerous is that they are consequences not just of the eternal human lust for power reflective of our flawed human nature, but of an ideology that legitimizes that dangerous desire by dressing it in the lofty rhetoric of “social justice” and “equality.” Thus tyranny is rationalized and justified by the professed boons that it will deliver, such as “flattening the curve” of coronavirus infection based on incomplete “expert” knowledge about the virus’s lethality. Lenin at least was more honest about the nature of his tyranny:  in 1906 he defined dictatorship as “nothing other than power which is totally unlimited by any laws, totally unrestrained by absolutely any rules, and based directly on force.”

We need to remember this history of progressivism in America so that we understand how deeply engrained these ideas have become. Our despotic governors are not just prey to their flawed human nature, but are legitimized by an ideology that is founded on the need to limit our unalienable rights in order to create a more “just” world. These dangers, then, are systemic and opportunistic, finding in crises an opening for further encroachment on our liberties, and further aggrandizement of progressive power. These ideas, then, require a much more vigorous pushback, and a more concerted effort to dismantle the deep-state institutions that enforce these assaults on our freedom and autonomy.

The protests in various states like Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky against these overweening, arbitrary, and unconstitutional rules and orders perhaps signal the beginning of such a pushback by citizens. But most important will be the presidential election in November. If we the people make the wrong choice then, we may lose our last chance to restore the Constitution’s safeguards of our freedom.

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Photo by Andrew Layton, U.S. Air National Guard

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